One who reads the Qur’an and hadith literature cannot miss the several references concerning hell. While many would understandably appreciate why some of humanity’s worst criminals might deserve to burn in hell temporarily for their horrendous crimes, several would struggle with the idea of one enduring hell eternally for failing to believe in the correct religion.
The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was asked by his companions, “What is the biggest sin in the sight of Allah?” He said, “To set up rivals or those equal unto Allah, though He is the one who created you.” [Saheeh Al-Bukhari].
The Prophet described Shirk (polytheism) as the worst sin, as worship is a right due to Allah alone. It is wicked because it involves equalizing between He, who is the ultimate source of our existence and sustenance, with the creation that could barely help themselves. It is the pinnacle of ingratitude and treachery.
Allah is maximally quintessential in all His attributes. He is maximally perfect in His generosity, mercy, justice, power, knowledge, supremacy, etc. The utmost magnificence of His attributes makes Him one with an infinitely qualitative status. Allah’s sole right to the reception of worship is the logical and necessary outcome of His being ascribed with these attributes. It is the most significant right a maximally perfect being such as Allah lays claim to, and its infringement is the most severe crime that could be committed.
The severity of a crime is not only determined by how evil the crime itself is but also the moral worth or status of the offended side. For instance, animal abuse is not as severe as human abuse because the moral status of the human being is worthier than the animal’s. Consistently, seeing that God is infinitely more worthy, dignified, and greater than any other being, the severity of a crime committed against God should not be subjected to human conceptions of justice that we are ordinarily accustomed to. This entails that the ultimate crime of Shirk committed against Him would justly warrant a maximal punishment which takes form in an endless sequence of epochs of suffering in hell, as it is a fitting testament to the infinite worth of the offended God.
Allah guides the one who is genuinely determined to seek the truth. He states: “Whoever Allah wishes to guide; He expands his breast to Islam” [6:125]. The individual must truly want to submit to God even if it means conceding that he has been wrong about his religious views all along, changing his moral paradigm, upsetting his family and friends, and changing his lifestyle. If that determination is truly there, then Allah would enable that individual by strengthening his willpower and guiding his decisions to take the measures necessary to acquire the truth of Islam. Allah would enable him to want to undergo his research correctly and in an unbiased fashion. Allah would assist him by emboldening him and instilling courage in him to confront his family and friends about the new religion he has embraced.
Those who willingly choose not to investigate the truth claims of serious contending belief systems such as Islam, either out of indifference or unjustified misplaced overconfidence in their current beliefs, are morally culpable, as they did not take the duty of religious inquiry seriously enough. If we contrast how much research and how factual people are when making decisions about some mundane matters (e.g., determining which car to buy) with finding out what the true religion is, we see that many fall short.
Allah states that He would not bear people burdens that they are not able to bear. [6:152] On the Day of Judgment, those entering hell will concede that they were wrong and worthy of blame. They will not be kicking and screaming that God was unfair to them, but rather that it was their fault. [67:10]
Some people say that we are born into our respective faiths and that it is unjust for us to be punished for something we did not choose. However, we do choose to remain in our faiths. Being born into a non-Muslim family is indeed a barrier, but it can be overcome. It is widely common to see people abandoning their parents’ belief systems and traditions for something else. The problem, however, is that many make wrong decisions when it comes to the new beliefs they decide to adopt.
Moreover, being born into something cannot be a blanket moral excuse. For instance, we would not excuse racists remaining racists simply because they were brought up in a racist household. We would expect them to know better and make the right decision of changing later.
Some question how God can be All-Merciful, despite punishing some in hell for eternity. As was already stated, Allah will not place anybody in hell unless they have a fair opportunity to make decisions that would have placed them on the right course toward the path of guidance. Allah does not owe us salvation. Mercy is the remission or forgiveness of a penalty that is already fair to apply to begin with. This is especially the case when Allah Himself has assured us that He does not let anyone carry a burden too heavy for them to bear.
To understand “All-Merciful” as an attribute entailing that Allah is entirely merciful to everybody unconditionally is problematic. We need to understand that Allah’s attributes of mercy and wrath are appropriately relational to that, which is fitting to these attributes. For example, a rebellious Satan is not fit to receive Allah’s mercy. For Allah to never unleash His wrath on unrepentant criminals could, in fact, be said to not be loving and merciful to the victims who do not obtain justice in this life. And so on.
In summary, standard objections raised against hell stem from a lack of appreciation for God’s status as an infinitely majestic being and a misunderstanding of how His divine attributes are to be conceived. If one believes in God, as the vast majority of people do, then he ought to find out what God has to say about the purpose of our lives, how to treat people, whether there is salvation, whether God is pleased with us or not, whether we are indebted to God for our existence, etc. Man must find out what his duties are.
There is a lot at stake here, and the more there is a stake in something, the more vital it is that we have correct beliefs concerning that thing. The first essential step is to pray and yearn for God’s guidance genuinely and be willing to sacrifice all that it would take to attain it.